Peregrine Spring: A Master Falconer's Extraordinary Life with Birds of Prey - Nancy Cowan (2016)

Part III. A LIFE FILLED WITH RAPTORS

Chapter 26. Summer Flights

Flying for exhibitions and classes in the spring and summer was not something I was used to doing as a falconer because falconers put birds up for the molt through the summer. Flying after the molt is done starts in late summer to prepare birds for the fall and winter hunting season. There are difficulties flying in spring and summer that one doesn’t face later in the year.

One year, long before I began the falconry school, I was asked by the local Cub Scout pack to speak at the last meeting for the year in June. I did not want to disappoint the kids, and Injun had finished his molt quite early, so I agreed to have the pack meet at our home. When they assembled in my yard, I gave a short talk to the Cubs and then turned Injun loose. He took a perch in one of the spruce trees over the drive and chanced upon a nest full of baby robins. Needless to say, this did not work out well for the robin family. Injun, of course, was pleased with his discovery. He flew a great demonstration for the Cub pack despite being harassed by a pair of furious parent robins and having already had a meal of robin nestlings. Later in the fall, and for years after, when I flew him at home, he always stopped by the nest, now empty, just to see if another tasty surprise awaited him.

On another occasion we were hired to do a summer program for the Fort at Number 4, a re-creation of an eighteenth-century fort sited on the banks of the Connecticut River in Charlestown, New Hampshire. We were familiar with the fort, but when we arrived, I looked at the surroundings like a raptor would instead of a tourist. There was plenty to interest a raptor, and none of it had a thing to do with life in the old days. We received a few scoldings from birds with nests located in a copse of trees nearby. I scouted the area, trying to establish the safest, most viewable location for the flight. It seemed best to avoid the nest-bearing trees.

The Fort at Number 4 is a large square of palisades, with an interior square bounded by living quarters and gates at two ends. There were lookout towers, too. All of the buildings were constructed of hewn logs. The interior square would make a good area for a flight demonstration, I thought. It had an unobstructed viewing area and lots of perching places, and we were out of sight of those pesky bird nests. Little did I suspect an adventure was about to begin.

It was Jazz’s first spring with me. She was a Harris’s hawk without much hunting experience, but she was working well on the lure. I was confident she would accomplish a good flight demonstration. I stood in the center of the fort and cast her off. Out from holes, nooks, and crannies in the logs and palisade walls erupted hundreds of swallows hell-bent on driving my hawk from the vicinity. The swallow army formed into a large, dark cloud flying hot on the heels of my inexperienced hawk as she sought to out-fly it. I was afraid that in her panic she might crash into one of the structures or fly up and over the palisades to be chased to goodness knows where—across the river, over the highway, or to any number of places from which I would have trouble retrieving her.

Visitors to the fort watched in awe as the spectacle took place. My hawk was flying as fast as she could around the inside of the fort walls with the murderous black cloud right behind her. Sometimes one of the smaller birds would dart forward to take a whack at her. Jazz could not be distracted from her escape flight to cast a glance at the glove I held out to retrieve her.

Suddenly something wondrous happened. Jazz spread her wings and put on the brakes in midair. Caught by surprise, the cloud of swallows separated around her and re-formed without losing speed. Jazz pumped her wings and started flying right after them. Now a different sort of race was on! Scores of the swallows darted off to safety into their nest holes. The cloud was diminishing as Jazz chased it. Eventually Jazz was pursuing only a handful of swallows, which, with a flick of their wings, dashed out of sight between the logs and under the eaves. I hastily pulled the lure out of my game pocket and swung it for Jazz, who turned at the sound of my whistle and caught it handily.

There was a round of applause from the onlookers. They had been treated to a far more exciting display than I had intended, and they had no idea how relieved I was things had worked out. For Jazz, of course, it was an important learning experience and contributed to what made her such a fine hunter for the rest of her life. For me, it was a lesson, too, on the unexpected difficulties presented by flying raptors during the summer months when songbirds and other small birds are busy building nests, raising young, flying about everywhere, and militantly defending their territories.

One spring morning, a class turned into a stellar moment for my Harris’s hawk named Smoke. I had assembled my students in the backyard for the flight portion of the class. Smoke was brought out, weighed, and proved to be exactly at her flying weight, a bit above thirty-two ounces. I cast her off to take a perch on a limb overhead.

I was busy explaining to the students how the next few moments would proceed and failed to notice Smoke’s attention was riveted on a large rock around which we had recently planted three small ornamental shrubs. Suddenly she dropped from the tree to seize a mole popping up from the base of one of the shrubs. I hurried over to find something that resembled a fat, furry gray kielbasa in her talons. No wonder the new shrubs had not been doing well. As fast as lightning, her other foot struck down into the mole tunnel and came up with another fat, furry kielbasa-mole! On behalf of the shrubs, I was thrilled. But this didn’t bode well for flying her for the class.

When a raptor has caught, killed, and eaten quarry, the bird is ready to find a nice, comfortable perch upon which to sit, relax, and digest. Our agenda at the moment was flying, the direct opposite of what would transpire if nature took its course. I dropped to my knees beside my bird, now clutching her “two-for-the-price-of-one” quarry, and offered her a chick. Smoke dropped her moles to hop to my glove, the moles were swiftly deposited out of sight into my pocket, and class resumed. After class, I put her away in her mew with her two prizes. I knew she would not fly for days after consuming them, but she certainly had earned them. Now whenever I cast Smoke off, she takes a perch on the same limb to check out those bushes. Like the lucky fisherman with a favorite fishing hole, this must be her “sweet spot.”

Because of a class schedule that starts our falconry school in mid-April, I need to have birds done molting and ready to be taken down to flying weight. In the confines of our well-lit basement, the Harris’s begin and end their molts due to the artificial “daylight.” I work birds into the class schedule once their molts are done.

One summer when there was lots of wild bird activity in my yard, the tables were turned on Scout. I sent him aloft during a class and when he did not return from the barn roof, I looked up to find out why. I saw Scout sitting, practically back on his tail, as an angry hummingbird buzzed to and fro inches from his face. When I called Scout away, he looked happy to come down from the area of confrontation. He had no desire to tangle with the angry little male who, ounce for ounce, clearly outdid him on the aggression scale. A tiny hummingbird “reading the riot act” to a hawk was enough to keep my class of students chuckling for quite a while.